Moses Mendelssohn, Idolatry, and Baseball Cards

October 17, 2019 | Abraham Socher
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Reminiscing about his childhood enthusiasm for collecting baseball cards, Abraham Socher notes that he and his friends imbued these objects with an almost-metaphysical connection to the players depicted upon them. In this way, a card was not unlike an idol that, “in representing the god, . . . becomes a conduit for its power.” The connection puts Socher in mind of the 18th-century Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn’s theory of idolatry, which connects the phenomenon to the development of writing itself with the help of a speculative history in which primitive man discovered how to express himself through ever-greater abstraction:

[F]irst, [according to Mendelssohn], “images of the things” replaced the things themselves; then, “for the sake of brevity,” came rapidly sketched outlines and, finally, further stylized hieroglyphics. Such abstraction made knowledge and its transmission possible, but “as always happens in things human, what wisdom builds up in one place, folly readily seeks to tear down in another.” In its progress from the thing itself to the abstract symbol, the sign became opaque, and this led to a new kind of religious error.

“The great multitude,” Mendelssohn writes, “saw the signs not as mere signs, but believed them to be the things themselves.” Hieroglyphics made this both better and worse. They were plainly not faithful images of the thing they represented. [But] the very mystery of an abstract glyph which could almost magically summon up its referent led to “all sorts of inventions and fables,” which were then, according to Mendelssohn, encouraged by . . . manipulative priests.

An idol, then, is a symbol whose referential function has been lost, misunderstood, or deliberately mystified.

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